Can you have fun with X-rays?

Lobster with X-ray vision
2008 HowStuffWorks

Sandwiched in between ultraviolet rays and gamma rays, X-rays have been a very helpful member of the light spectrum. We've had great success using X-rays for medical imaging. They can spot bones that are out of whack, identify tumors and obstructions and, at higher doses, help cancer patients shrink tumors via radiation therapy. And, assuming flight safety is something you hold dear, we've all stepped through the door frame of an airline X-ray scanner (hoping nothing sets it off and delays our exit from the perfect chaos that is the airline security check-in area).

One much less serious, but much more fun, place X-rays have made a mark is in popular culture. Science yet again has provided the superhero with a convenient superpower. A couple of minor superheroes have boasted "X-ray vision," but Superman is, of course, the big kahuna. The man of steel has X-ray vision that allows him to see through inconvenient things like walls, the better to spot his foes. (Just don't ask him to try to see through lead -- he can't. Even Superman has his limitations.)

Comic books were a good place to find another riff on X-ray vision: X-Ray Specs novelty glasses. The ads for X-Ray Specs, which began running some 50 years ago, usually showed a rather crazed looking fellow holding up his own hand and regarding all of the bones, suddenly visible, made clear thanks to the bulky glasses perched on his nose. Because they lacked a rather important component -- an actual source of X-rays -- X-Ray Specs were based less on science than on an optical illusion. All they really achieved for the eager specs wearer was a kind of wobbly double-image. Our hero in the advertisements couldn't really see the bones of his hand, much less get an X-tra revealing look at the shapely woman who was sometimes included in the ads.

As an interesting footnote, X-Ray Specs have a famous novelty relative in their family tree. The specs were first mass marketed by a man named Harold von Braunhut, who would go on to invent and market a product that would achieve worldwide fame: Sea Monkeys. (It's alright to admit it if you've ever "raised" some.) That's right, the man who brought us X-ray vision for mere pennies also convinced people that brine shrimp made good pets. Look on the bright side: You get double the sea monkeys if you look at them through your X-Ray Specs.


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